Fantastically insane revenge melodrama about a man in his forties (Choi Min-sik in a delirious performance) who, after being held captive in a cell-like room for fifteen years, is suddenly and mysteriously released. His goal: to find out who had incarcerated him for so long, and why.
To reveal anything further would be cruel, for one of Oldboy's joys is its twisty-turny plot. The story itself confuses at times, but one by one, the kinks work themselves out, even though they require the audience to believe in a little mumbo-jumbo, and even as the film's ultimate moral remains obscure.
Much has been said about this film's so-called ultra-violence – there was a minor uproar when it won the Jury Grand Prix at Cannes in 2004, thanks to a festival jury headed by Quentin Tarantino – but this brouhaha is overblown. I've seen far worse in Scorsese movies. Outside of one gruesome dental torture scene and some grisly theatrics at the end of the film, the violence in Oldboy is psychological. (Indeed, I have not seen so much pure sadism outside of a Lars von Trier movie.)
Park handles the dark, sometimes sickening proceedings with grace. There is little flash and dazzle to the film. Its physical violence is muted, its pace often quiet, its visual sense – carefully composed shots, long takes – very much in line with the classical stylistics of Asian cinema. Yet in the middle of it all you have Choi's wild, take-no-prisoners performance.
In the end, Oldboy winds up turning the spirit of the revenge film on its ear, becoming more about the meaning of sacrifice than the worth of vengeance. It's not a great film, but it may well be an influential one. (An American remake is already in the works – hooray for Hollywood.)